As Europe debates migrant crisis, a surge of boatpeople in Southeast Asia

Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar who face persecution at home are making perilous boat crossings to Thailand and Malaysia, provoking strong reactions from regional governments. Thailand is a hub for human trafficking.

Hamzah Osman/AP
Migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive at a police station in Langkawi, Malaysia, on Monday. Hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in Southeast Asia have reached land and relative safety in the past two days.

The arrival of 1,600 boatpeople on the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia in recent days serve as grim reminders that Europe isn’t the only place facing a migration crisis.

Officials said that human traffickers had apparently abandoned the refugees' boats – described as “virtual floating prisons” – and left the passengers to fend for themselves, reports The Associated Press. On Sunday, three boats carrying 1,108 people arrived on the Malaysian island of Langkawi while four boats carrying another 600 people landed today in the Indonesian province of Aceh.

Most of those seeking asylum are Rohingya Muslims who face systemic persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. For years they have braved the perilous sea and land route via Thailand to reach Malaysia and apply for refugee status. The AP reports that they’ve been joined by a growing number of Bangladeshis fleeing poverty. But a crackdown in Thailand, a regional hub for human trafficking, has disrupted the flow of migrants there and led to more perilous crossings to Malaysia and Indonesia.

Their desperate hope for a better life elsewhere is shared with the tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean and seek sanctuary in Europe. 

On April 22, five days before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the situation in the Mediterranean “seems to be the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War,” a human rights group in Southeast Asia issued a similar warning about the Rohingya. 

In a letter to regional heads of state, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said “the longstanding persecution of Rohingya has led to the highest outflow of asylum seekers by sea since the US war in Vietnam.” It added that the region’s human trafficking epidemic “threatens ASEAN’s physical and economic security.”

Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, a Rohingya rights group, estimates that 7,000 to 8,000 people are now being held in ships in the Malacca Strait and nearby international waters as result of the crackdown in Thailand. 

“Thailand has tried to prevent traffickers from continuing their business ... so that has forced them to go somewhere else,” Ms. Lewa told Agence France-Presse. She said the refugees were “just trying to disembark before they die.” 

The Thai response follows the discovery earlier this month of 33 bodies buried in a shallow mass grave in the mountains of southern Thailand. Human Rights Watch said the grave contained the remains of people who starved or died from disease while being held by smugglers awaiting payment before taking them into Malaysia. 

Thai authorities have since arrested dozens of suspected smugglers, including a man accused of being a regional trafficking kingpin, in addition to several provincial politicians and local officials.

While the recent crackdown appears to have disrupted trafficking networks, Thai officials and refugee activists told the Sydney Morning Herald that smugglers are believed to have taken asylum seekers deeper into the jungle to avoid detection.

Amid rising international criticism, Thailand’s prime minister, an army general, has called for a three-way meeting with Myanmar and Malaysia to try to resolve the regional human trafficking crisis. Last year, the US State Department downgraded Thailand to its lowest level in its annual trafficking report, putting it on par with North Korea and Syria.

The Christian Science Monitor reported last year that the exodus of Rohingya from Myanmar accelerated after 2012 in the wake of pogroms in western Myanmar. 

Malaysia, a majority Muslim country, is a top destination for Rohingya: Over 34,000 are registered with the UNHCR there. Malaysia has won praise for its humanitarian response to refugee arrivals, but rights groups say that it lacks a clear legal policy, putting migrants and refugees at risk of exploitation and arbitrary arrest. 

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.